2 Cover Alone Together Table of Contents Alone Together ALSO BY SHERRY TURKLE Title Page Dedication Epigraph AUTHOR S NOTE Introduction PART ONE - The Robotic Moment CHAPTER 1 - Nearest neighbors LIFE RECONSIDERED THE TAMAGOTCHI PRIMER UNFORGETTABLE CHAPTER 2 - Alive enough WHAT DOES A FURBY WANT? OPERATING PROCEDURES AN ETHICAL LANDSCAPE FROM THE ROMANTIC REACTION TO THE ROBOTIC MOMENT CHAPTER 3 - True companions SPARE PARTS GROWING UP AIBO FROM BETTER THAN NOTHING TO BETTER THAN ANYTHING SIMULTANEOUS VISIONS AND COLD COMFORTS CHAPTER 4 - Enchantment FROM MY REAL BABY TO MY REAL BABYSITTER DON T WE HAVE PEOPLE FOR THESE JOBS? RORSCHACH TO RELATIONSHIP CHAPTER 5 - Complicities MECHANICAL TODDLERS BUILDING A THOU THROUGH THE BODY
3 BUILDING A THOU THROUGH A FACE AND A VOICE BUILDING A THOU BY CARING BUILDING A THOU IN DISAPPOINTMENT AND ANGER AGAIN, ON AN ETHICAL TERRAIN CHAPTER 6 - Love s labor lost CARING MACHINES CURING A LIFE COACHING AS CURE A BEAUTIFUL THING A ROBOT THAT EVEN SHERRY WILL LOVE DO ROBOTS CURE CONSCIENCE? CHAPTER 7 - Communion A MOMENT OF MORE: THE DANCER AND THE DANCE A MOMENT OF MORE: MERGING MIND AND BODY THROUGH THE EYES OF THE ROBOT CONSIDERING THE ROBOT FOR REAL PART TWO - Networked CHAPTER 8 - Always on THE NEW STATE OF THE SELF: TETHERED AND MARKED ABSENT THE NEW STATE OF THE SELF: FROM LIFE TO THE LIFE MIX THE NEW STATE OF THE SELF: MULTITASKING AND THE ALCHEMY OF TIME FEARFUL SYMMETRIES CHAPTER 9 - Growing up tethered DEGREES OF SEPARATION THE COLLABORATIVE SELF THE AVATAR OF ME PRESENTATION ANXIETY CHAPTER 10 - No need to call AUDREY: A LIFE ON THE SCREEN WHAT HAPPENS ON FACEBOOK, STAYS ON...? FINER DISTINCTIONS OVERWHELMED ACROSS THE GENERATIONS VOICES CHAPTER 11 - Reduction and betrayal
4 SERIOUS PLAY: A SECOND LIFE LIFE ON THE SCREEN ADAM TEMPTATION CHAPTER 12 - True confessions VENTING THE CRUELTY OF STRANGERS SEEKING COMMUNITIES AFTER CONFESSION, WHAT? CHAPTER 13 - Anxiety RISK MANAGEMENT WHAT S IT ALL ABOUT? HIDE AND STALK PRIVACY AND THE ANXIETIES OF ALWAYS PRIVACY HAS A POLITICS CHAPTER 14 - The nostalgia of the young ATTENTION SPONTANEITY THE PERILS OF PERFORMANCE WALDEN 2.0 CONCLUSION EPILOGUE NOTES INDEX Copyright Page Alone Together ALSO BY SHERRY TURKLE Psychoanalytic Politics The Second Self Life on the Screen Evocative Objects (Ed.) Falling for Science (Ed.) The Inner History of Devices (Ed.) Simulation and Its Discontents
5 Alone Together Alone Together TO REBECCA My letter to you, with love Alone Together Everything that deceives may be said to enchant. Plato, The Republic I m done with smart machines. I want a machine that s attentive to my needs. Where are the sensitive machines? Tweet available at Alone Together AUTHOR S NOTE Turning points Thirty years ago, when I joined the faculty at MIT to study computer culture, the world retained a certain innocence. Children played tic-tac-toe with their electronic toys, video game missiles took on invading asteroids, and intelligent programs could hold up their end of a serious chess match. The first home computers were being bought by people called hobbyists. The people who bought or built them experimented with programming, often making their own simple games. No one knew to what further uses home computers might be put. The intellectual buzz in the still-young field of artificial intelligence was over programs that could recognize simple shapes and manipulate blocks. AI scientists debated whether machines of the future would have their smarts programmed into them or whether intelligence might emerge from simple instructions written into machine hardware, just as neurobiologists currently imagine that intelligence and reflective self-consciousness emerge from the relatively simple architecture and activity of the human brain.
6 Now I was among them and, like any anthropologist, something of a stranger in a strange land. I had just spent several years in Paris studying how psychoanalytic ideas had spread into everyday life in France how people were picking up and trying on this new language for thinking about the self. I had come to MIT because I sensed that something similar was happening with the language of computers. Computational metaphors, such as debugging and programming, were starting to be used to think about politics, education, social life, and most central to the analogy with psychoanalysis about the self. While my computer science colleagues were immersed in getting computers to do ingenious things, I had other concerns. How were computers changing us as people? My colleagues often objected, insisting that computers were just tools. But I was certain that the just in that sentence was deceiving. We are shaped by our tools. And now, the computer, a machine on the border of becoming a mind, was changing and shaping us. As a psychoanalytically trained psychologist, I wanted to explore what I have called the inner history of devices. 1 Discovering an inner history requires listening and often not to the first story told. Much is learned from the tossed-off aside, the comment made when the interview is officially over. To do my work, I adopted an ethnographic and clinical style of research as I lived in worlds new to me. But instead of spending hundreds of hours in simple dwellings, as an anthropologist in a traditional setting would do, listening to the local lore, I lurked around computer science departments, home computer hobbyist clubs, and junior high school computer laboratories. I asked questions of scientists, home computer owners, and children, but mostly I listened to how they talked and watched how they behaved among their new thinking machines. I heard computers provoke erudite conversations. Perhaps, people wondered, the human mind is just a programmed machine, much like a computer. Perhaps if the mind is a program, free will is an illusion. Most strikingly, these conversations occurred not just in seminar rooms. They were taking place around kitchen tables and in playrooms. Computers brought philosophy into everyday life; in particular, they turned children into philosophers. In the presence of their simple electronic games games that played tic-tac-toe or challenged them in spelling children asked if computers were alive, if they had different ways of thinking from people, and what, in the age of smart machines, was special about being a person. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I witnessed a moment when we were confronted with machines that invited us to think differently about human thought, memory, and understanding. The computer was an evocative object that provoked self-reflection. For me, this was captured in a conversation I had with thirteen-year-old Deborah in the early 1980s. After a year of studying programming, Deborah said that, when working with the computer, there s a little piece of your mind and now it s a little piece of the computer s mind. Once this was
7 achieved, you could see yourself differently. 2 Face-to- face with a computer, people reflected on who they were in the mirror of the machine. In 1984, thinking about Deborah (and in homage as well to Simone de Beauvoir), I called my first book on computers and people The Second Self. That date, 1984, is of course iconic in Western intellectual thinking, tethered as it is to George Orwell s novel. Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a society that subjects people to constant government surveillance, public mind control, and loss of individual rights. I find it ironic that my own 1984 book, about the technology that in many a science fiction novel makes possible such a dystopian world, was by contrast full of hope and optimism. I had concerns about the holding power of the new technology: some people found computers so compelling that they did not want to be separated from them. And I worried whether losing oneself in worlds within the machine would distract us from facing our problems in the real both personal and political. But, in this first work, I focused on how evocative computers fostered new reflection about the self. In the decade following the publication of The Second Self, people s relationships with computers changed. Whereas in the 1980s that relationship was almost always one-on-one, a person alone with a machine, in the 1990s, this was no longer the case. By then, the computer had become a portal that enabled people to lead parallel lives in virtual worlds. People joined networks such as America Online and discovered a new sense of place. These were heady times: we were no longer limited to handfuls of close friends and contacts. Now we could have hundreds, even thousands, a dazzling breadth of connection. My focus shifted from the one-on-one with a computer to the relationships people formed with each other using the computer as an intermediary. I began throwing weekly pizza parties in the Boston area to meet people who could tell me the stories of their lives in the new virtual worlds. They described the erosion of boundaries between the real and virtual as they moved in and out of their lives on the screen. Views of self became less unitary, more protean. I again felt witness, through the prism of technology, to a shift in how we create and experience our own identities. I reported on this work in my 1995 Life on the Screen, which offered, on balance, a positive view of new opportunities for exploring identity online. But by then, my optimism of 1984 had been challenged. I was meeting people, many people, who found online life more satisfying than what some derisively called RL, that is, real life. Doug, a Midwestern college student, played four avatars, distributed across three different online worlds. He always had these worlds open as windows on his computer screen along with his schoolwork, program, and favorite games. He cycled easily through them. He told me that RL is just one more window. And, he added, it s not usually my best one. 3 Where was this leading?
8 Two avenues forward became apparent by the mid-1990s. The first was the development of a fully networked life. Access to the network no longer required that we know our destination. With browsers and search engines Mosaic, Netscape, Internet Explorer, Google one had the sense of traversing an infinite landscape always there to be discovered. And as connections to the Internet went mobile, we no longer logged on from a desktop, tethered by cables to an object called a computer. The network was with us, on us, all the time. So, we could be with each other all the time. Second, there was an evolution in robotics. Now, instead of simply taking on difficult or dangerous jobs for us, robots would try to be our friends. The fruits of such research made their way into children s playrooms: by the late 1990s, children were presented with digital creatures that made demands for attention and seemed to pay attention to them. Alone Together picks up these two strands in the story of digital culture over the past fifteen years, with a focus on the young, those from five through their early twenties digital natives growing up with cell phones and toys that ask for love. If, by the end of researching Life on the Screen, I was troubled about the costs of life with simulation, in the course of researching this book, my concerns have grown. These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time. This can happen when one is finding one s way through a blizzard of text messages; it can happen when interacting with a robot. I feel witness for a third time to a turning point in our expectations of technology and ourselves. We bend to the inanimate with new solicitude. We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other. In this book I concentrate on observations during the past fifteen years, but I also reach back to the prehistory of recent developments. To tell the story of artifacts that encourage relationship, I begin with the ELIZA program in the 1970s and take the story through to the sociable humanoid robots, such as Domo and Mertz, built at MIT in the 2000s. Along the way there have been many other digital creatures, including Tamagotchis, Furbies, AIBOs, My Real Babies, Kismet, Cog, and Paros, these last, robot baby seals designed specifically to provide companionship for the elderly. I thank the more than 250 people involved in my robot studies. Some who met robots came to MIT; other times I brought robots to schools, afterschool centers, and nursing homes. When working with children, whenever possible, I provided them with a robot to take home for several weeks. Children and their families were asked to keep robot diaries, accounts of home life with an AIBO, My Real Baby, or Furby. In the story of computer-mediated communication, I began my investigations in the 1980s and early 1990s with , bulletin boards, Internet Relay Chat, and America Online and went on from there to the first virtual communities and multiuser online role-playing games.
9 Over the past decade, as the network dramatically changed its contours, I broadened my investigation to include mobile devices, texts, instant messages, social networks, Twitter, and massively multiplayer online games. My work also included studies of virtual communities where three-dimensional avatars inhabit photorealistic spaces. The focus of my research on networking was the young, and so I did most of my observations in high schools and on college campuses. But I also spoke with adults who gave me insight into how the network is changing parenting and communications patterns in fields from architecture to management consulting. Over 450 people have participated in my studies of connectivity, roughly 300 children and 150 adults. I thank everyone who lent their voices to this work over the past fifteen years. I am grateful for their generosity and good will. The work reported on here, as all of my work, includes field research and clinical studies. In field research, one goes to where people and their technologies meet to observe interactions, sometimes ask questions, and take detailed notes. Depending on the nature of the field setting, casual conversations may take place over coffee or over snacks of milk and cookies. I teach courses about the computer culture and the psychology of computation, and some of my material comes from the give-and-take of the classroom. In the clinical component of my work, I pursue more detailed interviews, usually in an office or other quiet setting. I call these studies clinical, but of course my role in them is as a researcher, not a therapist. My interest in the inner history of technology means that I try to bring together the sensibility of ethnographer and clinician in all my work. A sensitive ethnographer is always open to the slip, to a tear, to an unexpected association. I think of the product as an intimate ethnography. In my studies of robots, I provided the artifacts (from primitive Tamagotchis and Furbies to sophisticated robots such as Kismet and Cog). This meant that I was able to study children and seniors from a range of social and economic backgrounds. In the research on the networked life, I did not distribute any technology. I spoke to children, adolescents, and adults who already had Web access and mobile phones. Necessarily, my claims about new connectivity devices and the self apply to those who can afford such things. This turned out to be a larger group than I had originally supposed. For example, in a public high school study in the spring of 2008, every student, across a wide range of economic and cultural situations, had a mobile phone that could support texting. Most students had phones that could put them on the Web. I am studying a moving target. In January 2010, a Nielson study reported that the average teen sends over three thousand text messages a month.4 My data suggests that this number is steadily increasing. What I report here is nothing less than the future unfolding.a My investigations continue. These days, parents wait in line to buy their children interactive Zhu Zhu robotic pet hamsters, advertised as living to feel the love. And one of the hottest online programs is Chatroulette, with 1.5 million users, which randomly connects you to other
10 users all over the world. You see each other on live video. You can talk or write notes. People mostly hit next after about two seconds to bring another person up on their screens. It seems right that Zhu Zhu pets and Chatroulette are the final objects I report on in this book: the Zhu Zhus are designed to be loved; in Chatroulette, people are objectified and quickly discarded. I leave my story at a point of disturbing symmetry : we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things. I preserve my subjects anonymity by changing identifying details, except where I cite scientists and researchers on the public record or those who have asked to be cited by name. Without mentioning real names and places, I express appreciation to everyone who has spoken with me and to the school directors and principals, teachers, and nursing home directors and staff who made my work possible. I studied robots in two nursing homes and have data from students in seven high schools (two public and coeducational; five private, one for girls, two for boys, one coeducational; and one coeducational Catholic high school). In some cases I have been able to follow children who grew up with Tamagotchis and Furbies through their adolescence and young adulthood as they entered the networked culture to become fluent with texting, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and the world of iphone apps. I thank these young adults for their patience with me and this project. I did much of the work reported here under the auspices of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. I thank all of my colleagues and students who worked with the initiative and in the Program for Science, Technology, and Society, which is its academic home. I have profited from their support and good ideas. Collegial relationships across MIT have enriched my thinking and been sources of much appreciated practical assistance. Rodney Brooks provided me with an office at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to help me get the lay of the land. He gave me the best possible start. Cynthia Breazeal and Brian Scassellati, the principal developers of Kismet and Cog, worked with me on the first-encounters study that introduced sixty children to these robots. These two generous colleagues helped me to think through so many of the issues in this book. On this study, I worked with research assistants Anita Say Chan, Rebecca Hurwitz, and Tamara Knutsen, and later with Robert Briscoe and Olivia Dasté. The Kismet and Cog support team, including Lijin Aryananda, Aaron Edsinger, Paul Fitzpatrick, Matthew Marjanavic, and Paulina Varchavskaia, provided much needed assistance. At the very beginning of my research on virtual worlds, I worked with Amy Bruckman. For me, it was a touchstone collaboration. Jennifer Audley, Joanna Barnes, Robert Briscoe, Olivia Dasté, Alice Driscoll, Cory Kidd, Anne Pollack, Rachel Prentice, Jocelyn Scheirer, T.L. Taylor, and William Taggart all made precious contributions during the years of interviews with children, families, and elders. I worked with Federico Castelegno at MIT on a study of online gaming; I thank him for his in-
11 sights. In this diverse and talented group, four colleagues deserve special recognition: Jennifer Audley worked on this project from the earliest studies of Tamagotchis and Furbies through the work on the robots Kismet and Cog. Olivia Dasté joined the project in 2001, working closely with me in nursing homes and schools and on the analysis of the first encounters of Kismet and Cog. William Taggart and Cory Kidd worked in nursing homes, primarily with the Paro robot. Each of them has my deepest thanks. I also am grateful to Professors Caroline Jones, Seymour Papert, Mitchel Resnick, William Mitchell, Rosalind Picard, and William Porter. Conversations with each of them brought new ideas. For my thinking about Domo and Mertz, thanks to Pia Lindman, Aaron Edsinger, and Lijin Aryananda of MIT s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory s successor) who shared their experiences and their robots with me. Conversations with five psychoanalytic colleagues were particularly important in shaping my thinking on children and the culture of simulation, both online and robotic: Dr. Ellen Dolnansky, Dr. James Frosch, Dr. Monica Horovitz, Dr. David Mann, and Dr. Patrick Miller. My MIT colleague Hal Abelson sent me an in 1997, suggesting that I study those dolls, and I always take his advice. In the late 1970s, he was the first to introduce me to the special hopes of personal computer owners who were not content until they understood the innards of their machines. In the late 1980s, he introduced me to the first generation of virtual communities, known at the time as MUDs. Following his leads has always led me to my life s work. I can only repay my debt to Hal Abelson by following up on his wonderful tips. I thank him and hope I have done him proud. Colleagues at Harvard and presentations at that institution have consistently broadened my perspective. In particular I thank Professors Homi Baba, Mario Biagioli, Svetlana Bohm, Vanessa Conley, Peter Galison, Howard Gardner, Sheila Jasonoff, Nancy Rosenblum, Michael Sandel, and Susan Sulieman for individual conversations and opportunities to meet with groups. There are other debts: Thad Kull tirelessly tracked down sources. Ada Brustein, William Friedberg, Katie Hafner, Roger Lewin, David McIntosh, Katinka Matson, Margaret Morris, Clifford Nass, Susan Pollak, Ellen Poss, Catherine Rea, and Meredith Traquina gave excellent advice at key moments. Jill Ker Conway s reading of my first full draft provided encouragement and direction. Thomas Kelleher at Basic Books contributed organizational ideas and a much-appreciated line editing; Jennifer Kelland Fagan copyedited this manuscript with great care. Any infelicities of language are surely the result of my not taking their good advice. Grace Costa and Judith Spitzer provided the administrative support that freed my time so I could interview, think, and write.
12 I have worked with Kelly Gray on six book projects. In each one, her dedication, intelligence, and love of language have been sustaining. In Alone Together, whose primary data spans thirty years of life in the computer culture, it was Kelly who helped me find the narrative for the book I wanted to write. Additionally, some of my favorite turns of phrase in this book are ones that Kelly introduced into our many conversations. I wanted to list them; she told me not to, but her modesty should not deceive my readers about her profound contribution. My work on robotics has been funded by the Intel Corporation, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, the Kurzweil Foundation, and the National Science Foundation (NSF Grant # SES , Relational Artifacts ). Takanori Shibata, the inventor of Paro, provided me with the baby seal robots to use in my studies. The Sony Corporation donated one of their very first AIBOs. My work on adolescents has been funded by the Intel Corporation, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation. Among all this generosity, the contribution of Mitchell Kapor must be singled out. He understood what I was trying to accomplish with an Initiative on Technology and Self and gave it his full support. In all cases, the findings and opinions expressed here are mine and do not reflect the positions of the organizations and individuals who have helped me. I have worked on the themes of this book for decades. It is certain that I have many unacknowledged debts. I take this opportunity to say thank you. There is a final debt to my daughter Rebecca. Since she was six, she has patiently made friends with the talkative robots simple and fancy that I have brought into our home. I have asked her to take care of Tamagotchis, to play with Kismet and Cog, to befriend our own stayat-home Paro. The My Real Babies frightened her, but she made a good effort to tell me why. Rebecca calls our basement storage room the robot cemetery and doesn t much like to go down there. I thank Rebecca for her forbearance, for her insightful and decisive editorial support, and for giving me permission to quote her. She refused to friend me on Facebook, but she taught me how to text. The story of digital culture has been the story of Rebecca s life. The book is written as a letter to her about how her mother sees the conversations in her future. Now Rebecca is nineteen, and I know that, out of love for me, she is glad this book is finished. As for me, I m not so sure. Thinking about robots, as I argue in these pages, is a way of thinking about the essence of personhood. Thinking about connectivity is a way to think about what we mean to each other. This book project is over; my preoccupation with its themes stays with me. Sherry Turkle BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
13 AUGUST 2010 Alone Together INTRODUCTION Alone together Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run. The advertising for Second Life, a virtual world where you get to build an avatar, a house, a family, and a social life, basically says, Finally, a place to love your body, love your friends, and love your life. 1 On Second Life, a lot of people, as represented by their avatars, are richer than they are in first life and a lot younger, thinner, and better dressed. And we are smitten with the idea of sociable robots, which most people first meet in the guise of artificial pets. Zhu Zhu pet hamsters, the it toy of the holiday season, are presented as better than any real pet could be. We are told they are lovable and responsive, don t require cleanup, and will never die. Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We d rather text than talk. A simple story makes this last point, told in her own words by a harried mother in her late forties: I needed to find a new nanny. When I interview nannies, I like to go to where they live, so that I can see them in their environment, not just in mine. So, I made an appointment to interview Ronnie, who had applied for the job. I show up at her apartment and her housemate answers the door. She is a young woman, around twenty-one, texting on her BlackBerry. Her thumbs are bandaged. I look at them, pained at the tiny thumb splints, and I try to be sympathetic. That must hurt. But she just shrugs. She explains that she is still able to text. I tell her I am here to speak with Ronnie; this is her job interview. Could she please knock on Ronnie s bedroom door? The girl with the bandaged thumbs looks surprised. Oh no, she says, I would never do that. That would be intrusive. I ll text her. And so she sent a text message to Ronnie, no more than fifteen feet away. This book, which completes a trilogy on computers and people, asks how we got to this place and whether we are content to be here. In The Second Self, I traced the subjective side of personal computers not what computers do for us but what they do to us, to our ways of thinking about ourselves, our relation-
14 ships, our sense of being human. From the start, people used interactive and reactive computers to reflect on the self and think about the difference between machines and people. Were intelligent machines alive? If not, why not? In my studies I found that children were most likely to see this new category of object, the computational object, as sort of alive a story that has continued to evolve. In Life on the Screen, my focus shifted from how people see computers to how they forge new identities in online spaces. In Alone Together, I show how technology has taken both of these stories to a new level. Computers no longer wait for humans to project meaning onto them. Now, sociable robots meet our gaze, speak to us, and learn to recognize us. They ask us to take care of them; in response, we imagine that they might care for us in return. Indeed, among the most talked about robotic designs are in the area of care and companionship. In summer 2010, there are enthusiastic reports in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on robotic teachers, companions, and therapists. And Microsoft demonstrates a virtual human, Milo, that recognizes the people it interacts with and whose personality is sculpted by them. Tellingly, in the video that introduces Milo to the public, a young man begins by playing games with Milo in a virtual garden; by the end of the demonstration, things have heated up he confides in Milo after being told off by his parents.2 We are challenged to ask what such things augur. Some people are looking for robots to clean rugs and help with the laundry. Others hope for a mechanical bride. As sociable robots propose themselves as substitutes for people, new networked devices offer us machine-mediated relationships with each other, another kind of substitution. We romance the robot and become inseparable from our smartphones. As this happens, we remake ourselves and our relationships with each other through our new intimacy with machines. People talk about Web access on their BlackBerries as the place for hope in life, the place where loneliness can be defeated. A woman in her late sixties describes her new iphone: It s like having a little Times Square in my pocketbook. All lights. All the people I could meet. People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude. Alone Together THE ROBOTIC MOMENT In late November 2005, I took my daughter Rebecca, then fourteen, to the Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. From the moment you step into the museum and come face-to-face with a full-size dinosaur, you become part of a celebration of life on Earth, what Darwin called endless forms most beautiful. Millions upon millions of
15 now lifeless specimens represent nature s invention in every corner of the globe. There could be no better venue for documenting Darwin s life and thought and his theory of evolution by natural selection, the central truth that underpins contemporary biology. The exhibition aimed to please and, a bit defensively in these days of attacks on the theory of evolution, wanted to convince. At the exhibit s entrance were two giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands, the bestknown inhabitants of the archipelago where Darwin did his most famous investigations. The museum had been advertising these tortoises as wonders, curiosities, and marvels. Here, among the plastic models at the museum, was the life that Darwin saw more than a century and a half ago. One tortoise was hidden from view; the other rested in its cage, utterly still. Rebecca inspected the visible tortoise thoughtfully for a while and then said matter-of-factly, They could have used a robot. I was taken aback and asked what she meant. She said she thought it was a shame to bring the turtle all this way from its island home in the Pacific, when it was just going to sit there in the museum, motionless, doing nothing. Rebecca was both concerned for the imprisoned turtle and unmoved by its authenticity. It was Thanksgiving weekend. The line was long, the crowd frozen in place. I began to talk with some of the other parents and children. My question Do you care that the turtle is alive? was a welcome diversion from the boredom of the wait. A ten-year-old girl told me that she would prefer a robot turtle because aliveness comes with aesthetic inconvenience: Its water looks dirty. Gross. More usually, votes for the robots echoed my daughter s sentiment that in this setting, aliveness didn t seem worth the trouble. A twelve-year-old girl was adamant: For what the turtles do, you didn t have to have the live ones. Her father looked at her, mystified: But the point is that they are real. That s the whole point. The Darwin exhibition put authenticity front and center: on display were the actual magnifying glass that Darwin used in his travels, the very notebook in which he wrote the famous sentences that first described his theory of evolution. Yet, in the children s reactions to the inert but alive Galápagos tortoise, the idea of the original had no place. What I heard in the museum reminded me of Rebecca s reaction as a seven-year-old during a boat ride in the postcard-blue Mediterranean. Already an expert in the world of simulated fish tanks, she saw something in the water, pointed to it excitedly, and said, Look, Mommy, a jellyfish! It looks so realistic! When I told this story to a vice president at the Disney Corporation, he said he was not surprised. When Animal Kingdom opened in Orlando, populated by real that is, biological animals, its first visitors complained that they were not as realistic as the animatronic creatures in other parts of Disneyworld. The robotic crocodiles slapped their tails and rolled their eyes in sum, they displayed archetypal crocodile behavior. The biological crocodiles, like the Galápagos tortoises, pretty much kept to themselves.
16 I believe that in our culture of simulation, the notion of authenticity is for us what sex was for the Victorians threat and obsession, taboo and fascination. I have lived with this idea for many years; yet, at the museum, I found the children s position strangely unsettling. For them, in this context, aliveness seemed to have no intrinsic value. Rather, it is useful only if needed for a specific purpose. Darwin s endless forms so beautiful were no longer sufficient unto themselves. I asked the children a further question: If you put a robot instead of a living turtle in the exhibit, do you think people should be told that the turtle is not alive? Not really, said many children. Data on aliveness can be shared on a need-to-know basis for a purpose. But what are the purposes of living things? Only a year later, I was shocked to be confronted with the idea that these purposes were more up for grabs than I had ever dreamed. I received a call from a Scientific American reporter to talk about robots and our future. During that conversation, he accused me of harboring sentiments that would put me squarely in the camp of those who have for so long stood in the way of marriage for homosexual couples. I was stunned, first because I harbor no such sentiments, but also because his accusation was prompted not by any objection I had made to the mating or marriage of people. The reporter was bothered because I had objected to the mating and marriage of people to robots. The call had been prompted by a new book about robots by David Levy, a British-born entrepreneur and computer scientist. In 1968 Levy, an international chess master, famously wagered four artificial intelligence (AI) experts that no computer program would defeat him at the game in the subsequent decade. Levy won his bet. The sum was modest, 1,250 British pounds, but the AI community was chastened. They had overreached in their predictions for their young science. It would be another decade before Levy was bested in chess by a computer program, Deep Thought, an early version of the program that beat Gary Kasparov, the reigning chess champion in the 1990s.3 These days, Levy is the chief executive officer at a company that develops smart toys for children. In 2009, Levy and his team won and this for the second time the prestigious Loebner Prize, widely regarded as the world championship for conversational software. In this contest, Levy s chat bot program was best at convincing people that they were talking to another person and not to a machine. Always impressed with Levy s inventiveness, I found myself underwhelmed by the message of this latest book, Love and Sex with Robots.4 No tongue-in-cheek science fiction fantasy, it was reviewed without irony in the New York Times by a reporter who had just spent two weeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and wrote glowingly about its robotics culture as creating new forms of life. 5 Love and Sex is earnest in its predictions about where people and robots will find themselves by mid-century: Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans, while the num-
17 ber of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practiced between humans will be extended, as robots will teach more than is in all of the world s published sex manuals combined. 6 Levy argues that robots will teach us to be better friends and lovers because we will be able to practice on them. Beyond this, they will substitute where people fail. Levy proposes, among other things, the virtues of marriage to robots. He argues that robots are, of course, other but, in many ways, better. No cheating. No heartbreak. In Levy s argument, there is one simple criterion for judging the worth of robots in even the most intimate domains: Does being with a robot make you feel better? The master of today s computerspeak judges future robots by the impact of their behavior. And his next bet is that in a very few years, this is all we will care about as well. I am a psychoanalytically trained psychologist. Both by temperament and profession, I place high value on relationships of intimacy and authenticity. Granting that an AI might develop its own origami of lovemaking positions, I am troubled by the idea of seeking intimacy with a machine that has no feelings, can have no feelings, and is really just a clever collection of as if performances, behaving as if it cared, as if it understood us. Authenticity, for me, follows from the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to relate to the other because of a shared store of human experiences: we are born, have families, and know loss and the reality of death.7 A robot, however sophisticated, is patently out of this loop. So, I turned the pages of Levy s book with a cool eye. What if a robot is not a form of life but a kind of performance art? What if relating to robots makes us feel good or better simply because we feel more in control? Feeling good is no golden rule. One can feel good for bad reasons. What if a robot companion makes us feel good but leaves us somehow diminished? The virtue of Levy s bold position is that it forces reflection: What kinds of relationships with machines are possible, desirable, or ethical? What does it mean to love a robot? As I read Love and Sex, my feelings on these matters were clear. A love relationship involves coming to savor the surprises and the rough patches of looking at the world from another s point of view, shaped by history, biology, trauma, and joy. Computers and robots do not have these experiences to share. We look at mass media and worry about our culture being intellectually dumbed down. Love and Sex seems to celebrate an emotional dumbing down, a willful turning away from the complexities of human partnerships the inauthentic as a new aesthetic. I was further discomforted as I read Love and Sex because Levy had interpreted my findings about the holding power of computers to argue his case. Indeed, Levy dedicated his book to Anthony,b an MIT computer hacker I interviewed in the early 1980s. Anthony was nineteen when I met him, a shy young man who found computers reassuring. He felt insecure in the world of people with its emotional risks and shades of gray. The activity and interactivity
18 of computer programming gave Anthony lonely, yet afraid of intimacy the feeling that he was not alone.8 In Love and Sex, Levy idealizes Anthony s accommodation and suggests that loving a robot would be a reasonable next step for people like him. I was sent an advance copy of the book, and Levy asked if I could get a copy to Anthony, thinking he would be flattered. I was less sure. I didn t remember Anthony as being at peace with his retreat to what he called the machine world. I remembered him as wistful, feeling himself a spectator of the human world, like a kid with his nose to the window of a candy store. When we imagine robots as our future companions, we all put our noses to that same window. I was deep in the irony of my unhappy Anthony as a role model for intimacy with robots when the Scientific American reporter called. I was not shy about my lack of enthusiasm for Levy s ideas and suggested that the very fact we were discussing marriage to robots at all was a comment on human disappointments that in matters of love and sex, we must be failing each other. I did not see marriage to a machine as a welcome evolution in human relationships. And so I was taken aback when the reporter suggested that I was no better than bigots who deny gays and lesbians the right to marry. I tried to explain that just because I didn t think people should marry machines didn t mean that any mix of adult people wasn t fair territory. He accused me of species chauvinism: Wasn t I withholding from robots their right to realness? Why was I presuming that a relationship with a robot lacked authenticity? For me, the story of computers and the evocation of life had come to a new place. At that point, I told the reporter that I, too, was taking notes on our conversation. The reporter s point of view was now data for my own work on our shifting cultural expectations of technology data, that is, for the book you are reading. His analogizing of robots to gay men and women demonstrated that, for him, future intimacy with machines would not be a secondbest substitute for finding a person to love. More than this, the reporter was insisting that machines would bring their own special qualities to an intimate partnership that needed to be honored in its own right. In his eyes, the love, sex, and marriage robot was not merely better than nothing, a substitute. Rather, a robot had become better than something. The machine could be preferable for any number of reasons to what we currently experience in the sometimes messy, often frustrating, and always complex world of people. This episode with the Scientific American reporter shook me perhaps in part because the magazine had been for me, since childhood, a gold standard in scientific publication. But the extravagance of the reporter s hopes for robots fell into a pattern I had been observing for nearly a decade. The encounter over Love and Sex most reminded me of another time, two years before, when I met a female graduate student at a large psychology conference in New Orleans; she had taken me aside to ask about the current state of research on robots designed to serve as human companions. At the conference, I had given a presentation on an-
19 thropomorphism on how we see robots as close to human if they do such things as make eye contact, track our motion, and gesture in a show of friendship. These appear to be Darwinian buttons that cause people to imagine that the robot is an other, that there is, colloquially speaking, somebody home. During a session break, the graduate student, Anne, a lovely, raven-haired woman in her mid-twenties, wanted specifics. She confided that she would trade in her boyfriend for a sophisticated Japanese robot if the robot would produce what she called caring behavior. She told me that she relied on a feeling of civility in the house. She did not want to be alone. She said, If the robot could provide the environment, I would be happy to help produce the illusion that there is somebody really with me. She was looking for a no-risk relationship that would stave off loneliness. A responsive robot, even one just exhibiting scripted behavior, seemed better to her than a demanding boyfriend. I asked her, gently, if she was joking. She told me she was not. An even more poignant encounter was with Miriam, a seventy-two-year-old woman living in a suburban Boston nursing home, a participant in one of my studies of robots and the elderly. I meet Miriam in an office that has been set aside for my interviews. She is a slight figure in a teal blue silk blouse and slim black pants, her long gray hair parted down the middle and tied behind her head in a low bun. Although elegant and composed, she is sad. In part, this is because of her circumstances. For someone who was once among Boston s best-known interior designers, the nursing home is a stark and lonely place. But there is also something immediate: Miriam s son has recently broken off his relationship with her. He has a job and family on the West Coast, and when he visits, he and his mother quarrel he feels she wants more from him than he can give. Now Miriam sits quietly, stroking Paro, a sociable robot in the shape of a baby harp seal. Paro, developed in Japan, has been advertised as the first therapeutic robot for its ostensibly positive effects on the ill, elderly, and emotionally troubled. Paro can make eye contact by sensing the direction of a human voice, is sensitive to touch, and has a small working English vocabulary for understanding its users (the robot s Japanese vocabulary is larger); most importantly, it has states of mind affected by how it is treated. For example, it can sense whether it is being stroked gently or with aggression. Now, with Paro, Miriam is lost in her reverie, patting down the robot s soft fur with care. On this day, she is particularly depressed and believes that the robot is depressed as well. She turns to Paro, strokes him again, and says, Yes, you re sad, aren t you? It s tough out there. Yes, it s hard. Miriam s tender touch triggers a warm response in Paro: it turns its head toward her and purrs approvingly. Encouraged, Miriam shows yet more affection for the little robot. In attempting to provide the comfort she believes it needs, she comforts herself.
20 Because of my training as a clinician, I believe that this kind of moment, if it happens between people, has profound therapeutic potential. We can heal ourselves by giving others what we most need. But what are we to make of this transaction between a depressed woman and a robot? When I talk to colleagues and friends about such encounters for Miriam s story is not unusual their first associations are usually to their pets and the solace they provide. I hear stories of how pets know when their owners are unhappy and need comfort. The comparison with pets sharpens the question of what it means to have a relationship with a robot. I do not know whether a pet could sense Miriam s unhappiness, her feelings of loss. I do know that in the moment of apparent connection between Miriam and her Paro, a moment that comforted her, the robot understood nothing. Miriam experienced an intimacy with another, but she was in fact alone. Her son had left her, and as she looked to the robot, I felt that we had abandoned her as well. Experiences such as these with the idea of aliveness on a need-to-know basis, with the proposal and defense of marriage to robots, with a young woman dreaming of a robot lover, and with Miriam and her Paro have caused me to think of our time as the robotic moment. This does not mean that companionate robots are common among us; it refers to our state of emotional and I would say philosophical readiness. I find people willing to seriously consider robots not only as pets but as potential friends, confidants, and even romantic partners. We don t seem to care what these artificial intelligences know or understand of the human moments we might share with them. At the robotic moment, the performance of connection seems connection enough. We are poised to attach to the inanimate without prejudice. The phrase technological promiscuity comes to mind. As I listen for what stands behind this moment, I hear a certain fatigue with the difficulties of life with people. We insert robots into every narrative of human frailty. People make too many demands; robot demands would be of a more manageable sort. People disappoint; robots will not. When people talk about relationships with robots, they talk about cheating husbands, wives who fake orgasms, and children who take drugs. They talk about how hard it is to understand family and friends. I am at first surprised by these comments. Their clear intent is to bring people down a notch. A forty-four-year-old woman says, After all, we never know how another person really feels. People put on a good face. Robots would be safer. A thirtyyear-old man remarks, I d rather talk to a robot. Friends can be exhausting. The robot will always be there for me. And whenever I m done, I can walk away. The idea of sociable robots suggests that we might navigate intimacy by skirting it. People seem comforted by the belief that if we alienate or fail each other, robots will be there, programmed to provide simulations of love.9 Our population is aging; there will be robots to take care of us. Our children are neglected; robots will tend to them. We are too exhausted to deal
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Dear Billy, I am writing to let you know how much I am missing you. I have some good news. I am going to be an auntie. I am so excited about finding out what my sister is having. I am very proud of you,